Preparing for a Malawian Wedding

Malawian Wedding

You might remember that Saliyapa (our housekeeper) had her traditional wedding back in June. Since then we have been gearing up for her church wedding. In some ways the traditional wedding could be compared to an engagement party in the States. While after that wedding she was considered married in the eyes of many, she and her husband did not move in together until after the church wedding which was last Saturday. I had offered to make the wedding cake for Sali’s reception and she asked me to be a part of her wedding party as the “cake cutter.” I was honored to be asked but not sure exactly what would be involved and with my family being the only muzungus (white people) at the wedding I was a little bit worried about making a fool out of myself. This concern was amplified by the fact that the culture here is much less direct than American culture so when I asked questions about what was expected of me I knew I was never really getting the complete story.

Overtime I gathered that I was responsible for the cake. Not just baking it and decorating it but also divvying it up for a number of purposes. I had baked six layers to make a three tiered wedding cake but was then told (a little too late) that the bride’s parents and the groom’s parents each needed their own personal cake and that I needed to individually wrap 100 bite size pieces of cake to sell to the guests. After consulting with Sali we decided that I would take one layer from the bottom tier to cut into bite size pieces for sale and I would cut one layer of the middle tier in half and decorate that separately for each set of parents. Since this information came to me so late in the game and since what had been originally asked of me kept changing, I started to worry about my ability to deliver what was required and then questioned my decision to ever get involved in the first place!

First the cake was going to be quite small (about the size of my daughter’s birthday castle cake), then it had to be a full blown wedding cake. I was originally told the cake was supposed to be a white cake, then a white and chocolate marbled cake and then after I had baked all the tiers and had them in the deep freeze I was told that it had to be a fruit cake and was brought a hand written recipe that included brandy (Saliyapa and her family do not touch alcohol) and dried cherries (which I have never seen for sale in Malawi). All of these changes were sent to me from the wedding committee through Sali and at that point I had a pretty good suspicion that someone on the committtee was just trying to see how much they could get out of the cake cutter. I refused to make the fruit cake because my baking is unpredictable at the best of times. Sali said she was fine with that, after all she had helped me bake the cakes we had in the deep freeze so that she could learn the process as she hopes to start selling her own wedding cakes in the future. She seemed happy to use what we had already made but still I worried that I was going to disappoint the wedding committee and I got more and more stressed about it as the day approached.

I was especially worried about the icing, would it melt on the day and would it survive the bumpy half hour drive to the wedding venue in the hundred degree heat? Luckily my husband had the brilliant idea to employ a chef from the tourism camp to help me ice the cake the day before the wedding. Isaac was incredible. When I showed him the icing recipe that I was planning to use he said, “It will melt, why don’t you let me make royal icing?” He then proceeded to make a beautiful white icing that he guaranteed melt proof with icing sugar, egg whites, and  a little bit of lemon juice. He iced the cakes, I stacked and staked them, and we added some lovely gold icing roses that I had found in town (Sali’s colors were gold and apple green). In addition to taking care of the icing Isaac allayed my fears about the cake meeting approval. He is Malawian and told me that he had never seen a tiered cake at any wedding he had ever been to and that this cake was going to make the day even more special for Sali. He also tasted the cake and told me people were going to love it. He was right. This is Isaac with the finished cake, and a few of the 86 bite size pieces we had wrapped (we didn’t quite make 100 but it ended up being enough). He was true to his word. The icing set hard, almost like a meringue, and survived both the trip and the heat under the hot tin roof of the wedding venue.

Malawian Wedding

The smaller cakes for the bride and groom’s parents were displayed in these baskets and then presented to them by the bride and groom during the reception.

Malawian Wedding

I had been told that I needed to have a gold or an apple green dress made to show that I was a part of the wedding party. I wasn’t sure how I would know what fabric to choose but I went to the main fabric shop in town and told them I was in a wedding and needed a gold dress (I thought I had a better chance of getting it right with gold than with apple green which seemed a bit more ambiguous to me). First the shopkeeper showed me a ivory/gold satin but when I mentioned that it was for a local wedding he whisked that away and came back with a fabric that had a much stronger color and told me he was confident that it was exactly what the bride had in mind. He helped me decide on the amount of fabric and the accessories I needed and then I asked if he could recommend a tailor. He sent me down the street with one of his employees to an older man with a lovely smile sitting behind his pedal powered sewing machine which was set up on the sidewalk. I was introduced to Ishmael and he said he would make my dress. I had brought a sample top for him to copy and told him that I’d like a long skirt to go with it. He took my measurements and said it would be ready on Friday, it was already lunchtime on Wednesday and I have to admit that I was a little surprised at how well it fit and that he was able to make it in such a short time. Not exactly what I would have chosen for myself but I got plenty of compliments at the wedding.

Malawian Wedding

I will write about the actual day soon but wanted to share these preparations that have needlessly caused me a lot of stress in the last few weeks. My husband kept telling me that it would all fall into place and he was right. Everything worked out beautifully, Sali had a perfect day, and we had a wonderful time at the wedding.

We are off to Lake Malawi tomorrow for a much needed vacation. The girls and I have not spent a night out of the reserve since April and we have a huge case of cabin fever. Wishing you a wonderful week!

Have you ever had to prepare for an event when you didn’t fully understand what was expected of you? How did you cope?


About Jody Tilbury

20 Responses to “Preparing for a Malawian Wedding”

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  1. Your cake looks great!

    This is a much lower-stress situation, but I felt like a real fish out of water when Emma started kindergarten last year. I never went to school at all until halfway through second grade, and that was a total of 6 weeks in a US public school before moving overseas until college. Everyone assumed I would know how everything worked, since I am American after all, but I didn’t have a clue what to expect!

    Enjoy your well-deserved vacation!!!

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      I can imagine that would be intimidating – especially because of the expectation that you would know how it all worked, but clearly you caught on quick and are an absolute pro now.

  2. Wow! Talk about grace under pressure! Your cake looks beautiful and I can’t wait to hear all about the actual day. Enjoy your vacation! You deserve it.

  3. Heather says:

    That cake worked out well – thank goodness for Isaac. I am sorry you had such miscommunications about what was required of you – typical! I’m sure you will remember this event, cake and all, as a unique African experience.
    Enjoy your vacation.

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thanks Heather – yes miscommunications are fairly common for me and I should know by now that it all works out in the end.

  4. What an adventure–you and the cake look fantastic! A job like that would be stressful under the best of circumstances, but not knowing the full story would be so difficult. Sounds like you were a champ, though!

    I can’t think of any situations I’ve experienced that are quite at that level, but the couple of times that I started teaching at a new school were challenging for me. That first day when old friends are greeting each other after summer break, and me not knowing anyone and having to navigate the where to sit, who would talk to me… Tricky.

    Hope you have a great vacation!

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      So interesting – I guess in many ways starting a new school as a teacher brings back the same feelings as starting a new school as a student. Where to sit on the first day was always stressful for me.

  5. Lisa Nolan says:

    Wow, pat yourself on the back! Weddings are stressful! Whether it’s what to wear, what flowers to use, and yes, the wedding cake! So much so my husband and I eloped (in Hawaii!). I hired a wedding planner in Hawaii and viola!

  6. Frances says:

    Just reading what you were going through was making me feel stressed! LOL Especially not knowing out to expect, but I see you handled everything so well. The cake and your dress are beautiful! Can’t wait to hear more about the wedding! Enjoy your vacation!

  7. Oh my! That would be so stressful! I was reading your other post about the whole wedding committee and I find that really fascinating. I’m glad you were able to say no to the fruit cake. That would have been even harder to sort out! I can’t say I’ve been in quite that situation before.

    Hope your vacation is lovely!

  8. Your cake was beautiful and thank goodness for Isaac and the magic frosting!! Sorry it caused you so much stress. In Kenyan the weddings I’ve been to have had big elaborate cakes, but they are individual cakes stacked on wire cake display holders so there ends up being a bunch of cakes. I would have been totally intimidated to even attempt it. But you did a beautiful job. Can’t wait to hear about the wedding!

  9. Anna says:

    I hope that you’ve all had a wonderful vacation. Congratulations on the cake and also on your dress, you look beautiful! I look forward to hearing more about the wedding. I have mentally noted the information about melting icing (my daughter has a summer birthday), what a great choice to bring in Isaac, it seems he saved the day. You seemed to discover Ishmael just at the right moment too, is a bit like a fairy story! I admire the way that you volunteered to do the cake and get involved, with the knowledge that you weren’t sure what would need doing. The results are great but it says more that you hung in there and worked with the committee (the thought seems somewhat alarming to me) for your friend.

    In terms of preparing for an event without clear expectations, I feel like that about most occasions where my in-laws are involved. They are Scottish and have particular traditions, as well as a different cultural history and reference points, that I feel unqualified in (as an English person). At our wedding they planned a set of Scottish dances, I was too stressed about our wider plans to engage with those but at my wedding I was completely thrown by the complicated requirements of the dances (to me) whereas they had all been doing them since they were kids. The consequences of me having no idea weren’t huge in that instance but in my relations with that part of my family I often feel underconfident about what I’m supposed to be doing! x

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thanks Anna, That sounds pretty stressful to me. At my wedding I didn’t want any surprises so I don’t know if I would have handled that as well as you did.

  10. Oh, that does sound very stressful! Yes, I can relate to not really knowing what is expected of you. My daughter goes to a local kindergarten in Hungary and, not speaking Hungarian, I never really know what is going on. They don’t send home any information on paper (that I could have translated), you are just expected to get the information by reading the noticeboards in the school, but since I work I never take her or pick her up myself. I am always two steps behind all the other parents in any kind of event or preparation, and get any information very last-minute and it’s always very vague by the time it gets back to me. It stresses me out, too, especially as I don’t want to disappoint her by being the mom who gets it wrong. I imagine you had similar fears since it was all for someone’s wedding. Anyway, great post and looking forward to reading more. What an adventure you are having!

  11. Katja says:

    I love that you’re immersing yourself in people’s lives and culture. This is my first stop on your blog and I’ll be back.

  12. Just finally had a chance to read this – you are such a good sport to jump into such a big role in the wedding! I also love your insight in relying on local resources to help you get ready with the cake and the dress, since they not only know the tricks for working in the local environment (heat, etc.) but are also more familiar with local expectations. Hope it was fun!


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